He showered Fourth street in silver coins and 3,000 attended his debut, equivalent to every third person in town in 1909. He was a showman famous throughout the West: The Great Fer-Don, lecturer, traveler and philanthropist. He was also a monster, and if there’s such a thing as a criminal genius, he was probably that, too.

(This is Part II of an article about the “Great Fer-Don.” Have you read Part I?)

Santa Rosa had never seen a scam artist like James M. Ferdon, who introduced a new kind of confidence game wrapped inside something old and familiar. He combined features of the traditional medicine show – a ballyhoo and parade, leading to a free evening stage show with entertainers to draw an audience and a pitch to buy an elixir for what-ails-you – but all that was now just the warmup. Waiting at a nearby hotel, Ferdon told the crowds, were European doctors who were experts in the ultra-modern technique of “bloodless surgery.” They could cure the most serious medical problems: Complete blindness and deafness. Paralysis. Gallstones. Appendicitis. Tumors. Cancer. All without a scalpel or the loss of a single drop of blood.

(RIGHT: James Ferdon portrait in the Salem, Oregon Daily Capital Journal, June 15, 1910)

It was such a brazen collection of lies that it apparently had the effect of shock and awe, even fooling people who thought they were the sort who never could be fooled. According to Ferdon, his European Medical Experts were so esteemed that local physicians flocked to them to be healed themselves of serious diseases. “Each day hundreds of people are cured by my doctor’s method,” Ferdon was quoted in an article that appeared in the Press Democrat. “Many local physicians come to us in diffent cities we have visited. We removed a cancer from a prominent physician in Dallas, Texas.” Claiming to perform such miraculous cures “bloodlessly” was the cake icing. What exactly that meant was never made clear, but some of the procedures described in the ads sound remarkably like “psychic surgery,” where tumors and such are pretended to be removed without breaking the skin – the “surgeon” uses basic sleight-of-hand techniques to palm animal organs and other gory bits that could be flourished in front of the patient as diseased tissue. If so, this apparently would be the earliest example of psychic surgery fraud in the United States.

Ferdon was also fuzzy on how much treatment would cost. In one instance his “Medical Expert” asked for $175 to remove gallstones, and demanded a $300 advance from someone else for the same “surgery.” (In Santa Rosa at that time the annual household income was about $500.) Ferdon was not only duping people into believing life-threatening illnesses could be cured by mysterious and unbloody means, he was stealing every cent they had, which probably denied them the hope of seeking real expert medical attention after they wised up. This made him a monster twice over.

As much as Ferdon was a villain, it’s hard not to stand agape at his salesmanship skills; this was a man who could sucker you into buying an interest in his new breed of racing horses that had wheels for legs and were powered by gasoline engines. His audiences simply didn’t see there was something discordant about world-class physicians teaming up with a man running a cornball show crafted to appeal to yokels. At one Santa Rosa performance he had a “ladies’ woodsawing” contest; the next night a live pig was given away (“the person winning it will be obliged to carry it out in their arms”). Ferdon had a particular affection for showing off tapeworms preserved in jars; no matter where he went, to hear him tell it, there was always someone ready to shower him with gratitude for having rid them of a gargantuan 50, 70, 90-foot parasite (which they measured how?) after all other treatments failed.

Another factor in his success was the manner in which he shamelessly bought off local newspapers, including both the Press Democrat and Santa Rosa Republican. Yes, he placed big ads announcing his shows, and nothing wrong with that. Yes, he also made claims that his European Experts could perform impossible cures, and there was nothing wrong with that, either, at the time; as discussed here earlier, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 enforced truth in labeling but didn’t even mention truth in advertising – the newspapers here (particularly the PD) routinely published ads for miraculous potions, including drugs that were supposed to prevent tuberculosis or repair heart disease. But Ferdon and the newspaper editors crossed an ethical line because his ads didn’t look at all like ads: They looked like regular news stories. They appeared above the fold in line with other articles (ads were usually at the bottom of the page or grouped together in the back section) and except for the headline font and layout being slightly different from the rest of the paper (Ferdon apparently provided his own headline typeset block as part of the deal), it was impossible to tell at first glance that it was fake news.

The articles that appeared in the Santa Rosa papers were written in general newspaper style, clearly adapted by someone using copy provided by Ferdon – phrases, even whole paragraphs, can be found in similar articles published in other towns. While some of the prose is rather purple (“the great Fer-Don [has] caused the whole of Europe and America to talk about his wonderful medical discoveries and the citizens have been patiently waiting for his arrival in our city”) much of it could pass for a real article of the day. The trusted local papers had become willing accomplices to fraud.

It may have come as a surprise to editors Ernest Finley and Allen Lemmon, but not all newspapers were eager to sell out their readership to hucksters; some investigated his claims and exposed him as a fraud, warning subscribers to stay away.

In the first in a series of front page muckraking stories, the Seattle Star in January 1910 described what happened when a reporter sought treatment under the guise of being a workman. Ferdon’s medical expert diagnosed “a heart affection” and a “bad case of the ‘nerves'” which could be cured by a two month treatment. As for the price, the doctor said, “I will let you down light. You say that you are an electrician and have a good job with the Seattle Electric company. Well, I’ll make it $50 for the entire treatment. This includes your prescriptions for the first month. After that you will be charged extra.”

When Ferdon entered the room to collect the money, the reporter confronted  him on operating a “fake medical bureau.” Ferdon denied the charge and tried to change the subject. “In California, mothers and invalids worship me. Every week I visit the orphan asylums and scatter gifts among the waifs. The newsies I remember on Christmas with huge Christmas trees. I intend to do the same thing in Seattle.” As the reporter continued pressing, Ferdon threw out another red herring: “There is not a business or profession that is free from faking…the grocer will advertise milk as the best, but in reality it is half water. The ethical physician tell you a man is hopeless, but at the same time he will treble his visits until the victim passes away. The politician is a faker–we’re all fakers, if you put it that way.”

Ferdon told the reporter “My treatments consist of massage, vibrators, medicines and the violet rays.” The medicine, he claimed, was formulated by his doctors in a “laboratory”  elsewhere in the hotel building. The reporter checked and found the so-called lab just another hotel room.

Most of all, Ferdon seemed irate that the newspaper didn’t play along. “The Star is doing wrong in trying to drive me out. I bring lots of money to this city. Why in hell don’t you and your editor quit and leave me alone. The P. I. and the Times are not molesting me.” In its introduction, the editor commented, “If The Star had chosen to accept the advertising instead of exposing these fakers it would have been richer by probably $3,500.” The Seattle Star also found that in 1907 the Portland Daily News had similarly investigated him rather than accept the fraudulent ads. The Star summed up Ferdon’s advertising strategy: “Their scheme, highly successful in most cases, is to buy up venal newspapers with large advertising contracts at hush money rates, and then take advantage of the credence the public puts in these prostituted journals.”

The Seattle Star continued its front page exposé, even printing an interesting letter from a woman, Mrs. E. J. Eakin, who lived in Napa just before Ferdon came to Santa Rosa that revealed his other activities in this area (which were never mentioned in the PD or Republican):

I was residing in Napa, Cal. two years ago when Fer-Don and his band of ‘fakers’ came to town…For the first two weeks he did not make a cent. Then one Saturday night he managed to sell $4 worth of medicines to the ranchers. That gave him his opportunity. Ascending the stage steps, he said that he did not sell the medicine for money — but to cure the sick. Then he threw the $4 among the audience and a general scramble occurred. When it was noised about that Fer-Don was throwing money away the audiences increased rapidly…gradually every home in Napa had his medicines…

…The last week he was there, Fer-Don gave away coupons with every sale. The coupons entitled the holder to an examination by one of his “European Experts.” The simple people were made to believe that they had awful diseases, and the agony that they would suffer was pictured to them by the experts. Then a ‘treatment’ was advised, and it usually ended with the victim depositing from $10 to $500 with the fakers…[T]he victims began to awaken to the fact that Fer-Don and his experts were fakers and the medicines nothing but colored water. When Fer-Don found that the people were wise, he skipped out to Petaluma. He stayed there for several weeks, then returned to Napa. Then the town authorities took up the matter and raised his license so high that he had to leave town.

Normally Ferdon would milk a large metro area like Seattle for weeks or months, but the heat generated by the Star series drove him out after a few days. He made brief stops in Everett, Washington and Medford, Oregon, where his fake news stories boasted of his great cures (epic tapeworms mentioned, as always) but also included a new claim of being persecuted by busybodies: “[E]nmity always follows success, and there is always a certain class of humanity ready to cry ‘humbug,’ ‘fake,’ and ‘quack,’ but such howlers and defamers of honest characters are very seldom successful in any line of business because they do not attend to their own. They are too busy sticking their noses into the affairs of others.”

Two weeks later he was in Spokane, where the Spokane Press followed the Seattle Star in exposing his fraud in front page stories. “The ‘marvelous cures’ that he is alleged to have performed by his ‘psychic,’ ‘magnetic’ or ‘mesmeric’ process of ‘bloodless surgery’ have been heralded in large double column display ads in some of the papers, and the ‘wonderful’ Fer-Don has been preparing to rake in the shekels, as he has in the past, where exposure has not been present to lay bare his game. The Press was offered his advertising and refused it.”

The Spokane paper also offered an interesting tidbit about what happened after Ferdon left Santa Rosa: He tried to setup operations in Sacramento, but the City Council there moved quickly to get rid of him, passing a special ordinance requiring a $100/day license for any “medical minstrel shows.”

Even though Ferdon wasn’t in Spokane long, the muckraking newspaper kept the story alive. They found a woman from Pomona, California who had been diagnosed with “nervous trouble” by one of his “Experts” and her husband had raised the money for Ferdon’s treatment. Later the couple consulted a real physician who discovered she had an incurable tumor (which might have been breast cancer, judging from the newspaper’s description): “It was just too late then to effect a cure and leave her a whole woman, though had your Mr. Dunning been a physician he would have discovered the trouble in time to have given her a chance.”

That March, 1910 item in the Spokane Press was the paper’s last exclusive about Ferdon’s misdeeds; by April, the Great Fer-Don and his band of fraudsters were fugitives and drawing the attention of more newspapers.

Ferdon’s downfall began with a warrant from Everett, WA charging him with practicing medicine without a license; also wanted on a criminal charge was one of his staff, William Ramsey. By the end of April, the Sacramento grand jury indicted Ferdon and H. Thayer Thornberg, another associate, for obtaining money under false pretenses. And sometime around this period, Dr. Seth Wells, Ferdon’s main accomplice (see Part I) lost his Utah medical license after a conviction for assault.

Thornberg went to trial in June, where the prosecution presented evidence that Ferdon’s “medicine” for gallstone cure was 98 percent water with the rest being alcohol and coloring. He was found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison.

Meanwhile, “Where is Fer-Don?” articles began popping up in Utah, California and Washington papers. The Los Angeles Police Department was keeping a close eye on his home. Ferdon and crew, however, were hiding in plain sight; in June and July they were up to their usual business in Salem, Oregon. To accompany his fake news articles there, the Daily Capital Journal even ran two pictures of “Fer-Don,” the only time known his photograph appeared in a newspaper.

By the summer of 1910, there can be no doubt that the publishers of the Press Democrat and Santa Rosa Republican knew Ferdon was running a con game, and a potentially deadly one at that. Items about the police pursuit and the Thornberg trial had appeared in the San Francisco and Oakland papers, as well as in other well-read dailies from Sacramento and Los Angeles. The criminal charge against his associate, William Ramsey, even had been filed by someone in Santa Rosa. And, at the risk of projecting modern ethics onto the past, the editors had to realize that Ferdon had committed wrongs far worse than the objectives of usual medicine advertising, which was selling harmless, inexpensive snake oil to rubes – and he had done these bad things with their collaboration. At the very least, one might hope that editors Finley and Lemmon also recalled all the serious diseases that Ferdon’s “Experts” claimed to cure in the news-advertisements that appeared in their papers, and wanted to alert subscribers that any diagnosis and treatment was probably bogus. But not one word, as far as I can determine, ever appeared in either Santa Rosa newspaper to discredit him in any way. No mention of warrants or other legal woes, not even the complaint made against Ferdon’s accomplice came from someone right here in town. Once his show left Santa Rosa, he was never written of again. It was a second, and fundamentally worse, betrayal of their public trust.

Thornberg’s conviction marked the end of “The Great Fer-Don,” but there was a footnote of sorts: In December his wife, Mrs. Alpha Ferdon, made a plea deal in Sacramento to pay a $1,000 fine for “conspiracy to commit a felony through fake cures.” Her husband received the same offer but did not appear in court. Alpha paid another $1,000 for his bail, which was forfeited.

Fer-Don the “European Medical Expert” agent might be dead, but long live “The Great Lavita.” Through a 1912 Illinois medical newsletter and a Tacoma newspaper we find Ferdon and Seth Wells were still partners, this time Wells posing as Dr. A. E. Williams who treated the sick using the “marvelous Lavita method.” Except for the lack of the medicine show angle, it was identical to the Fer-Don scam; placement of fake news articles, bloodless surgery, wonderful cures, and as always, descriptions of a lady thrusting into the doctor’s hands a jar containing a monstrous tapeworm.

By at least 1914, Ferdon had changed persona yet again and emerged as “The Great Pizaro” (sometimes Pizarro). While the Fer-Don scam undoubtedly made him rich, being Pizaro kept him more-or-less out of trouble with the law, and it was something he enjoyed doing: Pitch man for an old-fashioned traveling medicine show, with musical and comic acts. There is available a wonderful first-hand account of the show from someone who worked for it as a child: “We basked in the lurid flames of the gasoline torches for the big evening performance. We helped to hand out free samples and pass along the bottles containing tapeworms purged from local citizens now able to live full and happy lives again for the first time in seven years….”

(RIGHT: Worker setting up the stage for the Pizaro Cactus Juice Show, c. 1920. Photo courtesy Durham County, North Carolina library collection)

This time he sold homemade nostrums such as “Cactus Juice Compound,” mineral salts, and his “Great Catarrh Remedy” (which the Cleveland Board of Health had analyzed and found to contain just soda, borax, and salt) but what he was really selling was nostalgia for the old-timey form of entertainment. Through that means he also gained a kind of respectability. He appeared in the 1920 census as a “manufacture of medicine” living in a very nice house in Hollywood, just off Sunset Boulevard. Billboard magazine reported on his comings and goings as they did all legit traveling performers: “Jim Ferdon (Great Pizarro) was wintering in Galveston, Texas” (1938) … “Mr. and Mrs. James Ferdon have opened their med show in Reading Pa., after spending a profitable and pleasant winter in the Sunny South. Mrs. Ferdon reveals that Sunshine Sal and Her Little Pal, of radio fame in the South, are none other than herself and daughter, Barbara Ann. They will be with the Piazaro med opera this summer” (1942).

Until his death in 1944, Ferdon toured the country with his Pizaro show, except for the three years he served in the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth. The Great Paul/Fer-Don/Lavita/Pizaro had yet another alias: inmate #23328. In 1924 he and four others – including Seth Wells – were convicted of “oil promotion fraud.” No other details of the scam can be found, but if Ferdon was behind it, you just know that a jar filled with tapeworms was involved somehow.

Dr. Goyer Has Large Tumor Removed to Test Bloodless Surgery–No Knife Was Used

“As we grow older we grow wiser,” is a saying that has followed humanity down the corridors of the centuries. True in every department of life, it is especially true with reference to the science of medicine and surgery. Never since the world began has medicine and surgery been reduced to such an exact science as at present and never have there been so many improvements and discoveries as within the past few years. All of the great discoveries in medicine and surgery have been by European doctors. Prof. Koch of Berlin, Germany, discovered the germ of consumption and other death dealing germs. Dr. Lorenz of Vienna, Austria, discovered bloodless surgery, whereby cripples, paralytics, hip joint disease, tumors, gallstones and appendicitis and diseases of women could be cured without the use of the knife. American physicians who for years have resorted to the knife and still keep in the same old rut today with their foggy ideas, are slow to recognized the new methods of the European Experts. It was left to Dr. Lorenz and the Great Fer-Don to bring into America the new method. To see is to believe and there are thousands who have seen and do believe; thousands who have been drawn from the yawning mouth of the sepulchre and restored to perfect health and happiness.

Eureka Physician Tests Method.

Among the many who came to test the healing power of these European Medical Experts and Bloodless surgeons who are now demonstrating upon the sick, crippled, and afflicted every day, there came one of Eureka’s most prominent physicians, who for years has enjoyed a successful practice. His reputation as a physician and surgeon has spread throughout the Sate of California and extended into other States. Broad minded, good natured, liberal in thoughts and deeds, he has won for himself many friends in Eureka. Dr. Goyer is his name. “For years I could have removed it myself with a knife if I could have got at it. I have heard whereby that tumors could be removed without the knife by the European Expert’s methods. I went and saw for myself. I am always willing to yield to science, and made up my mind to have my tumor removed by the Bloodless method. I am over 70 years old and I had confidence in Fer-Don and his experts. Well, it took about six minutes for Fer-Don’s European doctors to remove my tumor. No knife was used and no blood. I am perfectly satisfied. I am a practicing physician here in Eureka and have lived here for years.”

Fer-Don in speaking of the case said: “Each day hundreds of people are cured by my doctor’s method and many local physicians come to us in different cities we have visited. We removed a cancer from a prominent physician in Dallas, Texas. “You see,” said Fer-Don, “my office is crowded with sick. We will be in Santa Rosa at the Rex hotel for some time yet, then we go back to our main headquarters at 933 Market street, San Francisco.”

– Press Democrat, January 8, 1909


The Great Fer-Don, lecturer, traveler and philanthropist, the man, who, with his brother, has caused more comment than any other man who has [illegible microfilm] Oakland and San Francisco, is a man of many parts. During his stay many things have brought his name and his deeds to public notice. Last night on Fourth street he added yet to the entertainment by throwing broadcast into the crowd, money in handfuls until the air seemed filled with a shower of silver. To an observer it looked as if more than a hundred dollars must have been scattered in this way. It has also been whispered about that Fer-Don has assisted, in his own way in relieving a great deal of distress among the poor and sick of Santa Rosa. Presents of food, money and medicines have gladdened the hearts of many of the poor and many over whom the darkness of poverty and despair had settled found Fer-Don always ready to shed the sunshine of real help across their path.

Some people insist that Fer-Don is a spendthrift in throwing away money and in disposing of it so indiscriminately among those who need it, while others, wiser perhaps, say that all this is but bread cast upon the waters, to return in two ways; first, in the consciousness that he is doing real good; second, in the golden stream which flows into his coffers from the sale of his remedies, and which has made him the millionaire he is reputed to be.

At any rate the sales of these remedies all over the country are so great that Fer-Don is enabled to have the European Medical Expert, who accompanies him, treat all who come to their offices at the Rex Hotel, 533½ Fourth street, just for the cost of the medicines alone during the week. And here probably in making the cost of treatment so low, as these experts do is the most good done, for many who are sufferers from chronic diseases who would probably not be able to pay the price asked by most specialists are taking advantage of these low rates.

The Great Fer-Don will hold another entertainment tonight. Fer-Don does not lecture of sell medicine on Sunday  [illegible microfilm] troupe that accompany give an entertainment on that evening.

– Press Democrat, January 10, 1909
The Great Fer-Don Greeted by Crowds of People Saturday Night–A prominent Lady Relieved on Monster Tape Worm.

The newspapers have been making announcements daily of the arrival of the great Fer-Don, the man who had caused the whole of Europe and America  to talk about his wonderful medical discoveries and the citizens have been patiently waiting for his arrival in our city.

There were thousands of people out Saturday night to see and greet this great man, who is noted for his charitable deeds to the poor and afflicted, and they say that he has given away hundreds of dollars to the poor and destitute of Los Angeles and Oakland.

His name there is a household word. All men, women and children know him by his kindness and deeds, and they say he has won a warm spot in the hearts of many of the people of Los Angeles and vicinity.

Fer-Don will be long remembered here in our city, especially by the young people, for Saturday night, just about 7 o’clock, Ferdon was escorted to the Pavillion Rink by his band.

Fer-Don amused himself by throwing handful after handful of money to the vast crowd that followed the parade. The amount Fer-Don threw away nobody knows, but a banker who saw the silver shower estimated the sum at one to two hundred dollars.

When Fer-Don arrived at the show he was greeted by 3000 people, and when he appeared upon the stage he held his audience spell bound by his magnetic manner and eloquent flow of speech. The audience was interested and pleased, as we could tell by the expressions on their faces.

Fer-Don told of his great success in San Francisco and Los Angeles, gave one testimonial after another with the names and addresses of people cured of rheumatism, stomach trouble, tumors, gall stones, tape worms and cancers and then he asked for people to come upon the platform to test the methods of his wonderful treatment.

Crowds Eager to Buy

When Fer-Don offered his remedies for sale, everybody wanted to try the remedies and secure a card to consult the European Medical Expert about his method of healing the sick.

Office at 533½ Fourth street Crowded

Saturday was a busy day for the European doctor. Over sixty people called to see the doctor, some on canes, others on crutches. One old lady was carried on a cot. Some were cured then and there, others were much benefited. One prominent lady came and asked to see the European doctor and was told she must wait her turn. She replied, “I must see him at once, as I have something here in this glass jar for him.” When admitted to the doctor’s office she explained that she had been suffering stomach trouble for a long time; appetite was irregular, stomach would bloat and swell after eating, was very dizzy at times, also hot and cold flashes would come over her. She tried different medicines, but none seemed to do her any good. “My husband attended the show one night last week and brought home a bottle of Fer-Don’s Medical Compound. I have taken only four doses of the medicine and to my surprise I was delivered of a monster parasite which measured 30 feet in length.” The lady is well known here and left the worm with the doctor here for exhibition.

The great Fer-Don will deliver another lecture tonight and every night this week at the Pavillion Rink.

Ladies’ Woodsawing Contest Tonight

Fer-Don will give the best lady woodsawer a prize of five dollars in gold tonight at the show. A number of prominent ladies have entered the contest.

– Santa Rosa Republican, January 11, 1909
Crowds of People Saw Fer-Don Each Evening in Spite of the Rain

Local people claimed Fer-Don was a passing fad, and would soon wear out. The facts are that Fer-Don and the European Medical Experts are growing more and more interesting each day; many cures are added to the list  and it is almost impossible to find a man or woman or child in Santa Rosa who is not a staunch and true friend of the Great Fer-Don. Fer-Don, by his charitable deeds and liberal way to the public, has gained for him a warm spot in the heart of the many citizens.

Takes Children to Theater

Today Fer-Don entertained over 500 children, taking them to the Richter theater and picture shows. Fer-Don’s love and fondness for children has been the talk of all the large cities he has visited.

A thousand people saw Fer-Don last night. The music and entertainment was highly appreciated.

Fer-Don Headquarters Crowded Daily

At the office in the Rex Hotel Fer-Don’s European Medical Expert is kept busy. It is estimated that three hundred persons called at his office Saturday to take treatment with the expert.

– Santa Rosa Republican, January 16, 1909

The successful man is always the mark for imitators and impostors, who hope to build up a business through the great popularity and success of the one imitated. That is one of the penalties of greatness, and the public is warned against those who have recently established themselves in the vicinity of Oakland and San Francisco, claiming to be practitioners of bloodless surgery. The Great Fer-Don, at the cost of thousands of dollars, has alone bought these secrets and has engaged the only bloodless surgeons now practicing in America.

No one in need of the services of Fer-Don’s European Experts or Bloodless Surgeons can afford to trifle with imposters. Health is too valuable an asset to lose by dealing with imitators who have no knowledge of what they claim and hope to succeed only by false allegations in diverting the people away from the real and only specialists of this character, who are now located at 533½ Fourth street.

For two years or more the Great Fer-Don and his large staff of eminent experts have engaged in the practice of bloodless surgery through California. In Los Angeles, where they were most successful for one year, rank imitators sprang up in various parts of the city. Like the mushroom, they came and died in a day.

No real merit to their claims, no basis for their existence, they faded away like the mist before the noonday sun. Imitations may be the sincerest flattery, but not at all times, and the Great Fer-Don is doing a real service to mankind when he sends out warnings to beware of the “imitators.”


Get at the bottom. See and judge for yourself. Call on Mr. W. H. Harvey of 264 Eureka street, San Francisco, whom Fer-Don relieved of over 200 gall stones after one treatment.


These are facts–these testimonials can be verified–these are no mythical persons. They are stories of the phenomenal success of the Great Fer-Don, a marvelous record of a marvelous man, and in the face of these statements you cannot afford to take chances on the wile and unfounded claims of others who fraudulently claim to be what they are not.


The show at the rink had a good crowd, in spite of the bad weather. Tonight the pig will be given away. The person winning it will be obliged to carry it out in their arms.

– Santa Rosa Republican, January 22, 1909

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